The Toxic Consequences of Gifted Programs
Students in Ontario have to complete a set of standardized tests known as the EQAO. There are 4 such tests in grades 3, 6, 9, and 10 (the Literacy Test). Students with a score above the pre-determined cut-off are then considered for gifted, or enhanced, status. This can mean any number of things, but often it means that kids are transferred to specialized gifted programs where they enjoy smaller class sizes, customized learning plans, and more individual attention.
It’s no wonder gifted parents are thrilled with such programs. Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to give their child the best treatment possible? But what people don’t seem to talk about, aside from the random article every so often, is how it impacts the children themselves: both ‘gifted’ kids and the ‘average’ kids who are left behind.
I’m not gifted, but I grew up surrounded by gifted kids. My younger sister Ron is gifted. My fiancé Marius is gifted. Most of my friends are gifted. I’m in a unique position of seeing both sides of a very controversial coin.
Here’s a snapshot of what I’ve learned from interacting with gifted kids, and from my own experience as ‘average’.
On Being ‘Average’
Even in grade 3, I knew the EQAO was a BIG deal. Our class had been prepping for months. When the test day finally rolled around, my palms were sweaty and I sat on the edge of my seat, tapping my foot against the chair. I knew I was a smart kid, but widespread tests like the EQAO seem designed to bring out kids’ insecurities.
Back in the 90s, we didn’t receive our scores online. We were handed our scores in person in sealed envelopes. I bit my nails as my parents opened it, then revealed that I’d passed. I even got an ‘Exceptional’ score in creative writing (the only part of the test I had enjoyed, although I was upset I hadn’t been able to finish the story). I let out a big breath of relief. I had passed.
The next year, my sister did well on the EQAO test. Really well. So well that she got into the gifted program. After my mom met with a gifted program coordinator, she came home glowing. Ron was going to switch schools and begin a gifted program with “other kids like her.”
I love my little sister, but it felt like she had just gotten a letter from Hogwarts. She was talented Lily, and I was bitter Petunia. She was special, and I was not.
It was a hard pill to swallow for a nine-year-old. It felt like I had failed. I was crushed. I beat myself up for not studying harder for the EQAO. “Stupid,” I muttered into the mirror. “Idiot.”
It was the beginning of a new era in my life, of feeling less than. I’m 29 years old now and, while I have conquered several of my insecurities, some still remain.
I worked my ass off. I brought home straight A’s. I turned away from creative writing, thinking of it as a waste of time. And what was worse, I started hating myself. Phrases my parents used to console me (“you’re special in other ways”) only added fuel to the fire that was my own self-loathing. When the teacher commended me for good work in class, it felt like a farce. When kids asked me for help at recess, it felt like a lie. No one seemed to know what I knew—that I was a failure.
Over the next few years, I watched as Ron navigated her new school. She was picked up in a small yellow bus exclusively for gifted kids; I walked to school. She came home with interesting, creative assignments that pushed her outside of the classroom; I plowed through endless essays. Her class had 8 students; mine had 2 grades and 32 kids.
I was the older sister, but I felt inferior in every way.
In grade 8, I graduated with a long list of achievements. I won two awards—one for academic achievement, and one for service to the school. None of it meant anything, though, because I wasn’t gifted.
In high school, I got straight A’s. I poured everything into my work, needing to rise to the top. Seeing an A+ gave me a rush. But it came at a cost.
My dad was quizzing me the night before a test when I got three answers in a row wrong. I pinched myself, hard. “Wake up!” I hissed at myself. “You’re such a moron! I hate you!” My dad looked at me like I was insane. He closed the textbook slowly, like he was trying not to poke the bear. “Let’s pick this up another time,” he said.
In gym class, we calculated our BMI (a recipe for disaster for anyone, but especially for someone desperate to prove herself). I was in the “healthy” spectrum, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to be “better”. I stopped eating, and shed pounds like clothing. Only when my mom threatened to pull me out of school did I start eating again.
At the graduation ceremony from high school, my list of achievements and top marks took a full minute to read aloud, but I barely remember any of them. I was busy berating myself for forgetting to tell the office I had also received a scholarship. Checks out, I thought to myself. Fucking halfwit. Afterwards, my friends’ parents came by with their congratulations. “Wow! What a list!” they beamed. I almost threw up. That’s how much self-loathing I was dealing with.
After high school, I decided to go into film. In the opening seminar, they told us we each beat out 12 other kids for our spots in the program. As I had done for years, I prepared to knuckle down and get to work proving myself.
But then two things happened.
- My gifted friends went into the same programs as my non-gifted friends. Both gifted and non-gifted friends were becoming doctors. Both gifted and non-gifted friends were becoming engineers. Both gifted and non-gifted friends were becoming teachers, lawyers, accountants, social workers, editors, writers. It. Didn’t. Matter.
- No one gave a shit that I wasn’t gifted. No one had ever asked. I was the one who kept talking about it, beating myself up about it, and making it into something much bigger than what it was. No. One. Cared.
What they did care about was whether I was a good friend. Whether my work was good. Whether I had a solid work ethic. Whether I was resourceful, resilient, adaptable, etc.
And once I cared less that I wasn’t gifted, I began to thrive. I picked up a camera and learned how to be a videographer. I started my own business. I started running. I began to write again, and the words poured out of me. I wrote six screenplays. I wrote countless short films, articles, journal entries, reviews, short stories, poetry... I wrote my first novel last year. I’m working on my second novel now. I had been depriving myself of what I loved most, all because it didn’t get me better grades. It seems crazy now, looking back, that I let a simple label like “not gifted” define so much of how I saw myself.
It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you focus on what you are instead of what you aren’t.
On Being ‘Gifted’
Take the following thoughts with a grain of salt. I am not gifted myself, so I can’t speak to being gifted personally—but my sister, fiancé, and closest friends are gifted, so I’ve seen and heard much of the struggle from their perspective.
You’re 8 years old. You write a test and suddenly your life changes completely. You’re told you’re special, that you’re gifted, and put into another class in another school. No one asks you if you want to go: it’s an incredible opportunity, and you can’t pass it up. You’ll spend the next 4 years with the same group of people: no change on a year-to-year basis, no escape if you don’t get along with them.
Your parents are involved in your academics. Heavily involved. They have regular meetings with your teacher about your Individual Education Plan (IEP), where your learning style and performance is inspected and critiqued. You’re expected to get straight A’s. You’re expected to be better, to always think outside the box. Why aren’t you doing more?
The spotlight is on you, and so is the pressure. You’re gifted. You’re going to be someone someday, and it all starts now.
In high school, you’re put in “enhanced” classes, with more gifted kids from other schools in the district. You’re expected to excel here, too, in a bigger pool of talent. But for the first time in years, you’re also exposed to “average” kids in the same school. They look at you differently. Most of the time, they ignore you. Sometimes, they make fun of you. They pick fights. Your parents tell you they’re jealous—you wonder if you were doing something wrong. If being gifted makes you weird, different. You want to fit in, while standing out.
You’re given extra support. Your parents meet with a counsellor assigned specifically to you, to make sure you’re adjusting well to your new environment and thriving: AKA keeping up those grades.
You’re special. You have a lot of potential to live up to. Want to go into the arts or trades? Okaaaay, but you’re going to be the very BEST actor/photographer/technician/chef/you name it out there. Want to take a leap year? Gifted kids don’t “waste time”. Don’t feel like going to university? WHAT DO YOU MEAN? ARE YOU DYING? Because that’s the only way you’re getting out of going to university!
And when you do go to university, you’re on your own. Good luck, special snowflake.
Two important things happen when you go to university.
- You realize that the story you’ve been told for years, that you’re special, is not necessarily true. You’re going to encounter people who are better than you at X, Y, or Z—or all three. There’s no such thing as “gifted” classes in university. This is the real world, which has been real to everyone else for years. Time to catch up, double time.
- When you move away from home and into res, no one is around to put pressure on you. Suddenly, there are no overbearing parents, attentive teachers, or IEPs to guide you along your path. You’re left to your own devices and expected to, for the first time, keep yourself motivated. And hey, as it turns out, life is GREAT without that pressure, so would you be in a rush to put it on yourself?
You might not get good grades. You might even fail a course or two. You might start to question your career choice. It’s really hard to make friends when you’ve been with the same group of people for a decade. You’re unmoored. You feel lost. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
And what’s worse, after so many years of being told you’re special, you can’t help but feel an underlying sense of entitlement. Good grades were supposed to come easy, job opportunities were supposed to be in abundance, and people were supposed to look to you, not the other way around. There’s a bizarre mismatch between what you were told would happen in your life, and what is actually happening.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the gifted kids I know suffer from anxiety. The gifted program puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on kids for years. So much is expected of them.
Most of my gifted friends also felt a profound sense of failure when they didn’t achieve a specific career goal. Because, as my articulate fiancé puts it, the gifted program encourages the very dangerous act of associating your work with your identity. Once you are good at X, you must be the best X. X is not only what you do, but also who you are.
It’s a big problem, because what happens if X changes?
My good friend Nicole (name changed for privacy) always thought she would make it as an actor, and felt lost when she had to shift goals at 25.
An acquaintance worked abroad for years. He recently had to move home because of crippling anxiety.
Another dropped out of university and now works in retail.
Another was in politics, then started a grow op (legit), then went into banking. Now he’s flipping houses.
My fiancé thought he would be a composer, but realized he didn’t want to follow that path. He was one of the gifted kids who had come to think of his passion as his identity. Faced with no longer pursuing composing, he had to redefine himself. No easy task for a 24-year-old.
My sister is midway through her PhD in English literature, but she constantly questions the decision. Job prospects are limited in academia, and she doesn’t know if she wants to write papers and worry about publishing her entire career. “Is it enough for me to just… teach at a high school?” she asks, worried.
Yes, gifted programs can be great for some kids, but the divide has unintentional and often toxic repercussions for those on both sides. It sets unrealistic expectations and puts a tremendous amount of pressure on those classified as “gifted”. It makes “average” kids feel like failures, and makes them think they’ll never be good enough.
It’s time to change our thinking when it comes to the gifted program.
In an ideal world, every child would have a small class size, more attention, and an Individual Education Plan. But since that isn’t fiscally possible, we should revisit this divide in the first place. Is the cost of the gifted program worth such toxic prevalent consequences, or should we be phasing it out and funnelling that money to all classrooms?
We already have so much more insight into different types of intelligence. What about smart kids who don’t test well? Or athletic superstars? Or natural-born leaders? Or those with infinite imagination? Giftedness comes in so many different forms, yet the gifted program serves only a small subset of them.
The gifted program is great in principal. It seeks to support smart kids. But for all the kids it misses and omits with its traditional, outdated definition of “gifted”, is it really still working? And more importantly, is it really still worth it?